Coconut milk and coconut cream are not the same thing. However, coconut cream comes from coconut milk and you will get it out of the same can.
Basically, think of coconut cream the same as you think of cream from milk. If milk is non-homogenized, and is left to sit, the cream will rise to the top. Cream is a semi-fluid emulsion of fat and a little liquid (mostly fat). So, you can think of cream as “milkfat” that can be separated out of milk.
Although coconut milk is not really milk, it is an emulsion that contains liquid and fat. The fat will rise to the top of coconut milk to form a semi-fluid paste-like layer on the top of the coconut milk. This paste is the coconut cream. When a recipe calls for coconut cream, this is probably what it means.
The problem is that you will find the words “coconut cream” or the words cream, and coconut, on several different kinds of products. The most frequently confused product is Cream of Coconut. This product is typified by brands such as Coco Lopez Cream of Coconut, which are often found in the cocktail supplies section of the supermarket. These are not coconut cream, as defined above, but thickened mixtures of coconut milk, sugar, carrageenan, and preservatives. Some products might also contain a coconut puree. Cream of coconut is used to make tropical drinks like Pina Coladas (although you can make them from scratch with coconut milk).
In addition to cream of coconut, you might come across canned products labeled coconut cream which also are not coconut cream as defined above. Sometimes, a finely ground coconut puree is put in cans and called coconut cream, and sold for various uses, including skin care. Other times, you will find canned coconut cream which is really just the thickest “first press” extraction of coconut milk. When coconut milk is made, shredded coconut flesh is heated in water and this mixture is then squeezed through cheesecloth.
The liquid that seeps through is coconut milk. The first squeeze, or press, results in a more concentrated and slightly thicker coconut milk. The shredded leftovers can be pressed again to extract lighter coconut milks. The first press, although it is richer and more concentrated, is still just coconut milk, not really coconut cream. It will be easier, however, to get a good amount of coconut cream from these products. If you are not sure what product you have, check the ingredients.
Some products claiming to be “concentrated coconut cream” and comparing themselves to coconut butter, are nothing of the sort. Coconut butter is the fat of coconut will most all of the liquid removed. In other words, it is coconut oil. Pure coconut oil has a very high melting point. So, if the room you store it in s cool enough, it will start to harden, and depending on the temperature, can become very stiff. This is why it is sometimes refereed to as coconut butter. You may know that butter is made from milk cream, but milk cream and butter are not the same thing. Well, the same goes for coconut cream.
The coconut cream that rises to the top of coconut milk not a pure fat, so it will retain a white and paste-like consistency. There are many interchanged and confusing terms used in the coconut industry, many of them misleading. Most of the product sold in jars and labeled as Coconut Butterare really just coconut flesh ground into a thick paste. The coconut is shredded and dried before being ground, so that the resulting paste contains a higher proportion of fat than the original coconut, but it also contains all the solids from the coconut.
Basically, in order to have coconut cream you need a can of coconut milk on hand. If that can has been sitting undisturbed in your cupboard, some cream will have risen to the top. The richer the coconut milk, the more cream you will get. If your recipe calls for a little coconut cream (Thai curries often start with coconut cream, which is used like an oil for pre-frying the curry paste), do not shake the can, or you will mix the fat back into the coconut milk. Try not to agitate the can and open it carefully, and then skim the cream off the the top with a spoon. Sometimes, you may not find any cream, and this can be because the can did not sit long enough, or you have a can of light coconut milk, or your coconut milk is just doesn’t contain a lot of fat because it was from a later pressing (but the label doesn’t tell you that).
If you want to be more sure you will find a nice layer of cream at the top, put your can of coconut milk into the fridge overnight. The cold will accelerate the cream rising to the top. Also, if you open your can and you don’t find any cream on the top, you can transfer the coconut milk to a sealable container and then store it in the fridge to see if you can get some cream to rise. Obviously, if you are in the process of making a dish calling for coconut cream and you don’t have any at the top of the can, it’s a bit too late to wait around for it to rise. However, the good news is that coconut cream will probably not be indispensable. Depending on the use of the coconut cream in the recipe, you may be able to skip it, or use regular cream, etc. When Thai curry recipes call for coconut cream to fry the curry paste at the beginning, the cream can be replaced with vegetable oil.